Posted on September 25, 1995 in Washington Watch

In the halls of the U.S. Congress, the war against the PLO continues. A recent visit to the battlefield showed a most unpretty sight.

With only 24 hours notice, I was invited to testify before a House Committee on International Relations hearing on the Middle East peace process. I was the only Arab American present, and of the other 9 groups invited to give testimony, 8 were Jewish. The final group invited to testify called itself the Christian Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The tone of the hearings was completely out of touch with the political realities of the peace process. The issues raised, the allegations made, and the questions asked were so utterly bizarre and fantastic that the session might have been funny – if it were not for the fact that the impact that the U.S. Congress has on policy can be deadly serious. The purpose of the hearings, it appeared, was not to gain information on the peace process but to discredit the PLO and end U.S. financial support for Palestinians.

The statements made by the members of Congress at the opening of the hearings shared a set of common themes. Among them:

· Israel has honored the peace accord while the Palestinians have not;
· the Palestine National Authority (PNA) has misused U.S. aid; and, therefore
· Congress ought to pass new legislation suspending economic assistance to the Palestinians.

While a number of members of Congress spoke, the statements of three sponsors of a bill to stop U.S. aid are worthy of special attention.

What was intriguing about the comments of Republican Congressmen Forbes (NY), Saxton (NJ) and Delay (TX) and the other speakers as well, was their unbridled contempt for the PLO and the PNA. Their speeches were filled with disinformation and betrayed an astounding ignorance. Pro-Likud groups in Israel and the U.S. had supplied the speakers with “documentation” of alleged Palestinian violations of the Declaration of Principles on which they based their arguments.

But it was not only the case that the members of Congress sought to make that was disturbing – it was also the disregard for truth and disrespect for the Palestinian leadership they demonstrated in making that case.

Listening to their arguments about just one issue, such as the use of U.S. funds by the PLO, sounded more like a bad story than a U.S. Congressman speaking about a real situation. Congressman Michael Forbes’ (R-NY) words may serve as an example. “Despite a lifetime of mistrust of the PLO and revulsion toward their terrorist tactics,” Forbes told the Committee,

“I originally supported the Clinton Administration’s promise of U.S. assistance to the Palestinians. ...It is an open secret that the PLO is systematically violating the accords, yet U.S. taxpayer money continues to flow, much of directly to Arafat and his cronies…. I can’t explain this to my constituents, nor can I bear to watch an unrepentant enemy of Israel be built up with our money, posing a future threat to our ally….

“It is nothing short of scandalous that U.S. taxpayer money continues to flow to Arafat and his anti-Israel allies…. Our ally Israel has made strenuous efforts to live up to its commitments made at Oslo [while the PLO is] systematically violating virtually all of the Oslo principles….

Congressman Jim Saxton (R-NJ) and Tom Delay (R-TX) made many of the same arguments, but also made repeated reference to what they termed ”$500 million in American aid to the PLO.”

Congressman Saxton argued that “American taxpayers have a right to know where their foreign aid money is going. ...this aid money was never intended to be used for bribes for loyalists to Yasir Arafat.” Saxton therefore called for new legislation “before we extend another (!) ½ billion dollars to the PLO, given our domestic concerns….”

Even a causal observer of the peace process could not but be puzzled by such a total distortion of reality.

In fact, the U.S. is not giving $500 million to the Palestinian Authority, and members of Congress who actually voted on the legislation should be expected to know that. The U.S. gives $75 million a year and has committed to this amount for five years, for a total of $375 million. The other $125 million of Saxton’s figure is not real money at all. It is a U.S. commitment to underwrite loan guarantees from commercial banks to private U.S. companies with approved projects – and to this day the agency charged with honoring this pledge has not yet approved a single project!

The $75 million annual U.S. commitment does not go to the PNA. In fact, it goes to the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID). AID then disburses the money according to priorities the determine are fitting, with some of the money going to U.S. contractors with approved projects while another part of it goes to U.S. charitable organizations which do work in the West Bank and Gaza. And some of the funds go to U.S. consulting groups to perform studies and establish training programs in Gaza and the West Bank.

A study has shown that about 20¢ of each of these dollars ends up being spent in the Palestinian lands, with the rest going to U.S. contractors.

In the past two years some AID money has also gone to the World Bank fund established to pay the Palestinian police and other administrative costs. All of these funds are separately administered by international agencies.

No U.S. funds go to the PNA or the PLO directly. And according to a written statement sent to Congress by AID, the Agency is convinced that there is total accounting for all U.S. dollars spent.

In other words, U.S. aid to the Palestinians is administered in the same manner as all U.S. foreign aid – except, of course, U.S. aid to Israel. Israel is the only country to receive U.S. aid in cash with no accounting required.

During my testimony I asked that the members of Congress, since they were so concerned with accountability and their constituents’ concerns in a time of domestic hardship, would they not think it advisable to apply the same standard of accountability and compliance to U.S. aid to Israel? Unsurprisingly, my suggestion was met with silence.

But, of course, just as the facts were of no particular concern at the hearings, neither was accountability. The agenda of those members of Congress who participated in this campaign was to discredit the PLO, end U.S. assistance to the Palestinians and, thereby, undercut the peace process itself.

It appears that these hearings were called in response to pressure from some members of the Congress and their pro-Israel supporters. Next week, Congress must vote on whether or not to continue U.S. aid to the Palestinians. And while the Committee leadership wants to extend Palestinian aid, they feel sufficiently constrained by extremist elements to provide hearings in which an anti-Palestinian propaganda war can be waged.

During the hearings, the mainstream Jewish groups which testified were quite responsible. AIPAC (the well-known pro-Israel lobby), The American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress all spoke in defense of continuing Palestinian aid and in support of the Palestinian role in the peace process. But they were attacked by the more extremist groups and challenged by some of the members of the Committee.

This split in the pro-Israel community is a important new fact of life in Washington and is one reason why the war against the PLO continues with such intensity.

Israel may be trying to make peace with the PLO, but its pro-Likud politicians and their U.S. allies and the members of Congress they influence are clearly not ready for any meaningful peace. Too many years of anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab rhetoric have built up in Washington, and many members of Congress find it easier to play by the old rules and appeal to the extremists than to adapt to the new paradigm of the peace process.

A compounding factor is the failure of the Administration to act more forcefully in challenging Congressional distortions regarding both the Palestinians and the U.S.-Palestinian relationship. While some in the Administration have spoken out at times, they also seem constrained by a wariness of challenging the extremists. And so the response is more timid than it ought to be, especially given the vehemence of the attacks.

A final critical factor that contributes to this lop-sided war is the absence in Washington of any effective and official PLO representation.

The Jewish groups, fed by Israeli government sources or the Likud, come to their work with voluminous files and information: transcripts of Arafat speeches, records of PLO correspondence, detailed accounts of PLO and PNA behavior and statements – and it is from these that they make their anti-Palestinian propaganda.

We have repeatedly asked the PNA and PLO for a response, or for their own reports on Israeli compliance with the Oslo accords and Israeli behavior. An official and institutional Palestinian presence in Washington is required, as is a Palestinian information strategy for the U.S. and the means to implement it.

Absent this, those of us who fight for peace and Palestinian rights do so with one arm tied behind our backs – and very much alone.

In the meantime, the distortions that pass as fact in Congress and, as a result, help shape U.S. policy, have a direct impact on the course of the peace process and on the efforts to win recognition of Palestinian rights and establish a comprehensive Middle East peace.

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